On the day we left Zakopane the sun finally came out, just to annoy us! We packed up and left the site, attended as always by the ever-helpful Maciej who held up the traffic so we could drive out safely.
Then we had the usual hour-long crawl through Zakopane before we were finally on our way. Even if the weather had been good, it would still have been a frustrating place. To get up into the mountains there are a couple of cable-cars, but the
queue for tickets can take two hours, and when you get to the top there are probably souvenir stalls and hordes of people everywhere! We stopped at Chyzne, on the Polish/Slovak border, where John returned the Viabox and was told the deposit and any balance
remaining would be credited to his bank account. We were sceptical, but three days later the money arrived. Very efficient! Not only that, the plummeting pound and the strong Zloty meant he actually made 45 pence profit on the deposit
money! He then had to buy a vignette for the Slovakian road tolls, and change zlotys for euros. Then we drove through some pretty countryside, finally descending via a long series of hairpins until we reached our destination, Villa Betula Resort
at Liptovsky Sielnica.
Our aim was simply to have a quiet couple of days relaxing before tackling Hungary, and the site proved to be ideal. It consists of a small hotel and restaurant, a few apartments and cabins for rent, and a large grassy area for camping. It’s a great place for children, with plenty of interesting play equipment, and also a large horse-riding school. It also has a bio swimming pool, which presumably uses natural rather than chemical methods of keeping the water clean, but it the colour was a bit off-putting – a murky greeny-brown instead of an inviting blue! There are wooded hills all around, some almost high enough to be called mountains, and the large man- made Lake Mara is a few minutes’ walk away.
But best of all, from my point of view, there’s a field full of animals – a donkey, some sheep and goats, and a family of pot-bellied pigs. There’s been a singular lack of cats on this trip and I’ve been missing having furry friends to stroke. So a collection of hairy, woolly and bristly friends was the next best thing. In England there would be a large “Don’t feed the animals” sign but not here, and we enjoyed sharing our bread with them. We even bought some carrots especially for the donkey. He expressed his thanks by waking us at 6 a.m. with a series of good, rousing heehaws.
Our first task was to put the awning up. Normally we wouldn’t bother for a short stay, but it was still damp from Zakopane and would go mouldy if left. With luck, this will be the last awning erection for quite some time, as in Hungary and Croatia it will be so hot all we’ll need will be the small sun canopy we bought in the Netherlands. On our first evening we treated ourselves to a meal in the restaurant. The food was local gourmet cuisine, delicious and quite different from anything we’d had before. I started with garlic soup (I knew I’d fill the caravan with garlic fumes overnight, but tough luck!) and John had grilled smoked cheese and salad. He followed that with venison stew with Slovakian dumplings and I had pork in fig and walnut sauce, with sauté potatoes sprinkled with caraway seeds. The only criticism I have of the campsite is that there aren’t enough showers – only 4 altogether, 2 for men and 2 for women, and every time I went over with my towel they were busy! In the end I had to go at 2 in the afternoon to be sure of finding one vacant!
Other than walking by the lake and visiting a local supermarket, our only trip out was to a tiny village called Vlkolinec which I’d come across by chance on Wikipedia. It’s yet another Unesco World Heritage site, a delightful collection of traditional log cabins, painted in pastel colours and almost untouched by modern life. Most are still lived in but one is open to the public as a museum. It has one room where the whole family lived, ate and slept, a small kitchen, and a workroom for weaving and other crafts. A stream runs through the village, channelled in wooden troughs, so every cottage has easy access to fresh water. It was disconcerting to see signs everywhere warning of the danger of brown bears, who are becoming an increasing nuisance in the area!
After a relaxing few days we were ready to tackle Budapest. We crossed the Hungarian border at Sahy and changed our euros for forints. A thousand forints is £2.80, which means that filling the tank with diesel cost an alarming 29,500 forints (actually, a lot cheaper than England.) We had to get yet another type of vignette, this time an electronic one. Incidentally the roads in Hungary, as in Slovakia and Poland, can be a bit rough and rutted by the wheels of heavy lorries, which shakes the caravan and sometimes means we arrive at our destination to find the contents of lockers strewn about the floor!
As we approached Budapest we stopped to phone the campsite to make sure they had space, and were assured there was plenty of room. We drove into Budapest, a rather scary experience, and eventually found Haller Camping. We’d seen some favourable reviews of it, and had decided it would be much more convenient to stay in the city than miles away on the outskirts. Our first impression wasn’t good – the approach road was narrow and lined on both sides with parked cars, there was a queue of motor homes waiting to get in, and when a car wanted to leave the campsite everyone had to reverse, not an easy manoeuvre. The reception staff were very friendly but the site was chaotic, very crowded, the ground was bare, dusty earth and there was no shade from the hot sun. One half of the site was covered in tents and rubbish (empty bottles, cartons, carrier bags etc) and looked more like Glastonbury. The other half, for caravans and motor homes, was so crammed that in the UK it would be shut down, not even travellers would use it. Anywhere else in Europe that area would take perhaps 20 units. Here there must have been over 100. A back to back pair of pitches, suitable for two units, was occupied by nine motor homes, so close together they could hardly open their doors. There was one electrical hook-up point for this half of the site, but a useful extension lead was linked to 20 or so extra sockets. Nor was there any fresh water tap in this area, the only fresh water was through an old hosepipe in the motor home discharge area or from the washing up sinks. An Elf and Safety nightmare
The showers were in a sort of portacabin with a communal changing area. John interrupts here to tell of his toilet block. The three cubicles were so small that if you walked in forward you could not turn round, so had to go back out, turn round and reverse in. Then when it was time to come out, if someone was using a wash basin they had to move aside so you could open the door. The shower area was past the two urinals, on opposite walls. If they were both in use you had to wait before going to the shower or coming from it. My immediate reaction was to leave at once! However we decided to stay for as short a time as possible, spend a day sightseeing in Budapest then move on.
The site was very noisy in the evening but finally quietened down around midnight, so we got a reasonably good night’s sleep. Next morning we walked to the nearby metro station and caught a train to the city centre. The stations were quite modern but the ticket office and rolling stock were firmly stuck in the old Communist era, and it was quite a challenge to interpret the signs. We thought Polish was difficult, but Hungarian makes it look simple. It’s got twice as many dots and squiggles over the letters, for a start, and unlike almost all other languages spoken in Europe it’s not Indo-European but belongs to a strange, rare language family called Finno-Ugric . We always try to learn how to say a few useful phrases such as “please” and “thank you”, but in this instance gave it up as a bad job.
Luckily, when it comes to railways John seems to have a sixth sense and he managed to find the right line and the right station! In town we bought a ticket for a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, which included a free boat trip on the Danube. We’ve taken bus tours in other cities and found them excellent, but this was definitely below-par. The bus was old and uncomfortable, the recorded commentary not particularly good, and as most of the streets are tree-lined we tended to see nothing but foliage. Whenever John leaned out to take a photo he was poked in the eye by a tree branch. However, we now know that Buda is the hilly area on the west bank of the Danube, with the ancient citadel and castle, and Pest is the flatter area on the other bank, with the main commercial streets, theatres, galleries and the impressive Houses of Parliament.
We also learned that Hungary has had a very turbulent history. In the Middle Ages it was a powerful kingdom, but was conquered by the Turks and became part of the Ottoman Empire. After the Ottomans were evicted the Habsburgs took over, bringing a period of prosperity culminating in the Austro- Hungarian Empire. But they were on the losing side in the First World War and were penalised afterwards by losing a huge chunk of the country. They fared badly in the Second World War too, followed by years of Communist rule. An uprising in 1956 was crushed by Russian tanks. The last soviet troops left the country in 1991, and Hungary joined the E.U in 2004. Because Budapest has been attacked many times - more than 80% of its buildings were damaged in WW2, and all its bridges were blown up - there are very few really old structures. However there are many wide boulevards and squares lined with splendid fin-de-siecle and Art Nouveau-style buildings. After the bus tour we took to the river and saw the city from a different angle – in fact it’s much more attractive seen from the water. The boat, like the bus, had seen better days, but at least it was cool and we had a seat (of sorts.)
Back on dry land we made straight for a café and a large, cold beer before taking the bus once again. This time we alighted at Heroes' Square, a huge open space with an impressive array of monuments commemorating Hungarian rulers from the earliest times. Then there was just time for an ice- cream in the park before returning to the campsite via bus and metro.
As we’d decided to cut our stay short we had to make a quick decision on where to go next. Our original plan was to go to Lake Balaton, Hungary’s most popular holiday area. However we were rather disenchanted with Hungary, possibly unfairly, and decided to crack on to Croatia. We couldn’t make it to the coast in one go and there are few campsites in between, but we found one that looked nice and had room, so we set off early next morning. It was no easy task to get out of Haller Camping. Since our arrival, some motor homes had parked partially blocking our exit route, which meant we had to turn the caravan round through 180 degrees and go out a different way. The car belonging to our next-door neighbours was so close it made things even more difficult, and the car on the other side was parked on our electric cable, but in the end we managed it and left with a sigh of relief.
According to our satnav the journey to Karlovac in Croatia would take just over four hours. In fact it took two hours longer than that. First there was a long hold-up on the motorway south of Budapest due to an accident. It was interesting to see how many drivers tried to beat the jam by whizzing down the hard shoulder, impeding the passage of emergency vehicles! We finally got past the hold-up and drove on past Lake Balaton, which we just glimpsed in the distance, but then faced another long delay at the Croatian border. This was the first time in our trip so far that we’d had to show our passports, and not just once, as we left Hungary, but again when we entered Croatia a couple of yards further on! What's worse, John's extended wing mirror caught the Croatian guard's gun as we approached, causing a moment's panic. While John was in the queue I got out and went to the only money exchange (most borders have several) and changed our forints into kunas (about 10 to the pound, so calculations aren’t quite as tricky as in Hungary!) Croatia doesn’t have a vignette system, just the usual toll booths every now and then, and again the queues were long and slow. We skirted Zagreb and finally arrived, tired and hot, at Camping Slapic in Duga Resa, about 30 miles south west of Zagreb. More about it next time but suffice it to say it’s a lot better than the last place!